Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Strange Debate over Sex Education

I read in the news this week that leader of the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, Patrick Brown (PCPO - Simcoe North) was caught in an embarrassing flip-flop on the sex education question. In short, Brown signed a letter in English and Chinese that was distributed to the riding of Scarborough-Rouge River, which is in the midst of a by-election, claiming to oppose the current curriculum. When questioned about this Brown disavowed the letter, saying it was a mistake.


I do not particularly care about Mr. Brown's policy reversal. I think it is rewarding that he intends to, at least for now, leave in the sex education curriculum. I really do not think those that oppose sex education actually care about sex education changes, they seem to oppose sex education in general. I went to dinner with a friend tonight who teaches in public school. She reminded me that the curriculum was last overhauled in the 1990s, and elements of it, including the section on growth and development was the same from the 1980s. Growth and development, you know, the things kids are going through and have the most questions about. It might be nice if teachers had some more up-to-date materials to work with.

I'm going to keep this brief. I do not see what leg opponents of sex education stand on. The program is voluntary. These parents can pull their students from the class with the understanding they will instruct them on these matters. The additions to the curriculum falls in line with how our schools and culture are changing more generally. Schools are attempting, at an institutional level, to be bastions of acceptance, or at least tolerance. It seems odd to endorse things like the Rainbow Coalition but not discuss what gender expression is.

North Americans have quite conservative notions about sex, in general. Sex is viewed in a pretty strange way, though I admit I share some of these more prudish tendencies. That said I hardly think going down the road that ignorance is preferable to knowledge is the right path. I hope governments continue to improve the curriculum rather than bow to the preferences of a vocal, squeamish minority

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Worth Reading - August 25, 2016

From a couple weeks ago, the City of Brampton is studying transportation options for the Queen Street corridor

An interesting example of how a city can infill with good urbanism. I'd love for someone to do this with Brampton, just to see what it could look like.

More and more questions about affordability and whether or not we are in a housing bubble presses on my mind. The Toronto Star reports that a person needs an income in the six figures to afford a home

Andrew Coyne goes to bat for some honest conversation about proportional representation

Andrew MacDougall raises some concerns about the relationship between the PMO and the media

Kady O'Malley writes that the Trudeau government may not be able to dodge a referendum on electoral reform

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Electoral Reform Talks in Brampton

On Sunday August 21, 2016 Brampton's five Members of Parliament met at a recreation centre with members of the public to discuss electoral reform. The MPs were joined by the Parliamentary Secretary for Democratic Reform Mark Holland (LPC - Ajax, ON). The MPs were hosting a town hall and hoping to educate the public briefly on electoral reform and get feedback on what their constituents' desires and preferences are.

MPs call the meeting to order
The crowd of about 50 people could probably be divided into two camps. The first were the curious citizens - the kind that attends a public event out of some sort of civic curiosity. The second group, which I am an obvious member of, were those engaged in the electoral reform debate who wanted their elected officials to make the decision they wanted. Fair Vote Canada, an advocacy group for electoral reform, advertised the event extensively to its membership in the region. I think it is fair to say that the MPs were hoping to get more feedback from the general public.

The beginning of the presentation consisted of the MPs laying out how our current system worked and explained some of the various options on the table, pausing to take feedback from the public on specific discussion questions. During the election the Liberals committed that 2015 would be the last election held under the first-past-the-post system. This commitment was reiterated by Mr. Holland when directly asked.

Mark Holland (left) answers a question,
from left to right, Ruby Sahota, Kamal Khera, Sonia Sidhu 
There were a few defenders of the current system, but I would say they were in the minority. The real problem with electoral reform is that people can agree that FPTP is unfair, but cannot come to a consensus over which position is best. Some proportional system seems widely desired at the meeting, but that might be my own bias skewing what I observed.

Options ranging from ranked ballot, single transferable vote, open and closed list proportional representation and mixed-member proportional were all considered. If any one system had a plurality of support I would say it was mixed-member proportional, which is also the system I support. This makes sense given the contingent of Fair Vote Canada supporters, Greens and New Democrats at the meeting.

Two topics I did not predict came to discussion: e-voting and mandatory voting. To my surprise very few people were against mandatory voting. I would say the crowd was split between ambivalence and support for mandatory voting. Mandatory voting traditionally is accompanied by a small penalty for those who do not vote. Several members of the audience were convinced that instead of a penalty that voters should be rewarded for voting. Philosophically I find the notion abhorrent. Paying people to vote seems to totally violate the principles that should be at the foundations of any democratic system, but that's just my view. The notion seemed oddly popular. There was also considerable support for e-voting, which I found distressing. The one comment I made was motivated to offer a counterpoint for advocates of e-voting. Mass e-voting seems a way to quickly put our entire democracy at risk because of its inherent insecurity and risks. Many dismissed my concerns, but several of the MPs seemed to share my concerns.

I must admit I was generally impressed with the performance of the MPs. I was also happy to meet my Member of Parliament for the first time. A few of the MPs met with me afterwards to thank me for my comments and share their thoughts. It was a pleasant moment to be reminded that MPs, in many ways, are ordinary people that anyone can talk to.

Overall people wanted a system which was not too complicated, secure and fair. Simplicity is the great virtue of our current system, despite its distortions. Fairness is the real issue, which people cannot agree upon. Ultimately it is a question of whether or not one favours a consensus form of government or majoritarian government. Ruby Sahota (LPC - Brampton North, ON) sits on the electoral reform committee, so perhaps she will be thinking of this town hall and others when the time to deliberate comes up. As always, I recommend constituents contact their MPs and share their thoughts because some change is coming to the system and your input is requested. 

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Worth Reading - August 18, 2016

Some Canadians need to climb off their high horses. This episode of Canadaland Commons talks about Canada's policing and issues with race

Kurzgesagt - In a Nutshell may be my new favourite YouTube channel. In their new video they explain why genetic engineering may be on the verge of a revolution and how that will impact our future.  

Rosemary Westwood offers a take on white privilege in Canada

Johnny Sanphillippo tries to show what suburban poverty looks like

From Salon, Trump isn't Hitler... he's Mussolini

The Minister for Immigration wants to substantially increase Canada's immigration levels

Chantal Hebert writes about the major leadership vacancies in Canada's major political parties and the impact it may be having. 

The suburbs can be an ugly, unpleasant place. As if to prove it a couple had their wedding photos taken in one. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Two-Party Systems Mask Diversity

There is a contradiction at the heart of democratic, representative politics that has coming to mind for me lately. As voters we are put on a search for candidates who closely align with our own values while also satisfying our requirements for experience, etc. This ideal form gets sublimated by the practical realities of a given political system. In most of the Anglosphere that is done through a first-past-the-post model. Within FPTP there is an inherent incentive to trend towards two parties for the sake of efficiency. This is clearly problematic as parties become overburdened.

I have complained loudly and often over the shortcomings of FPTP, but the problem I am about to describe is not unique to it.

The logical end point of a FPTP system is a two-party system. The two parties compete over the theoretical political centre while holding onto the appeal of their more radical supporters on the political fringe, Labour and Conservatives in the UK, Liberals and Conservatives in Canada, Democrats and Republicans in America, Labour and Coalition in Australia. The two parties seem to track to one of two directions; they either go to the extreme ends of the spectrum or smash into the middle. In so many ways the Republicans and Democrats come from different worlds while in Canada the Liberals and Conservatives are often indiscernible.

Why does this matter? As I've discussed in previous pieces people deserve parties and politicians that speak to their perspective. In Canada social conservatives have no real voice at the highest levels of government. The Conservatives actively silence their more right-wing elements, even if that's what constituents wants, or at least a certain segment of them. Meanwhile many centrist, or moderate Americans, or left-wing Americans feel they have no one that speaks for them. The limitation of choices undermines the core notion of representative democracy. If you're a socialist in a rural area are you supposed to vote the 'left-wing' choice where in any urban jurisdiction the candidate would be the right-wing candidate?

Referenda is a microcosm of this problem. A good referendum offers a clear binary choice, but few things are clear binaries. The Brexit vote is a fine example. Many who voted yes may have preferred an option that kept the free trade components but granted greater immigration controls. Binary choices do not allow much nuance.  

Before electoral reformers get on a high horse to deride FPTP I would consider that most PR nations have two major coalitions composed of several parties. They essentially act as the big tent parties in a two-party system. Proportional representation has the benefit of giving voters a direct say on the power of the various factions in the broader political discourse rather than letting partisans and media sort it out internally.

It is difficult for me to look at Clinton and Trump and believe that they represent the two halves of America, but that is the implication of the political system. I am not sure what the solution is, but I am inclined to think that proportional representation serves better results. In heterogeneous societies with diverse problems and factions I think the two-party system needs to be retired for it masks political diversity.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Worth Reading - August 11, 2016

My former mentor, Dr. Maureen Lux, was interviewed about her new book about Indian hospitals in Canada

This is from a couple of weeks ago, Emmet MacFarlane makes the case for why electoral reform should be put to the public in a referendum

This column looks at how white men react to the press for more diverse voices in the public discourse. 

I generally try to avoid nostalgia pieces, but I'm going to share one. First, from the Atlantic, a retrospective on Ghostwriter, a PBS program that I loved as a kid. 

Secondly, from BlogTO, the rise and fall of MuchMusic

John Lorinc writes on the proposed new park for Downtown Toronto

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Teaching History in Ontario, Badly

Be forewarned that the following post could be classified as a rant and recommended to be read with a rapid, irate tone of voice.

Why do so many children in Ontario receive a lacklustre history education? I have the grade 10 mandatory Canadian history course in mind. I took that class as a student, I learned about that class as a teacher-candidate, I taught that class as a teacher and now I help students who take it as a tutor. Time and time again I see students have a poor educational experience, completely turned off from the discipline and ignorant to their own country's history.

There is fundamentally little wrong with the CHC2D/P curriculum. The document provides guidelines for a five unit course that focuses on the periods 1914-1929, 1929-1945, 1945-1982, 1982-Present and a unit on historical inquiry. However this document bears almost no resemblance to the education I see students receiving. I assume that the mentalities and approaches to history calcified in the previous curriculum and teachers have not bothered with updating their materials and approach. Which is baffling given that they are expected to address the present which is constantly moving forward.

In my experience CHC2D/P, also known as Canadian History since World War I, is taught as 3.5 units. The first unit is an exhaustive study of World War I, this is followed by a combined 1920s/30s unit, which is of course followed by World War II. If there is time a fourth unit is dedicated to "the rest". The entire second half of the 20th century and the 21st century is boiled down to whatever can be crammed in before the final exam. I recall when I was a high school student our class got past the mid-1960s while our peers across the hall ended WWII in June. I suppose it is a great irony that history teachers are unable to manage time, but for me, talking to students, it is immensely frustrating.

What I once assumed to be a laughable fluke seems actually to be the norm. If classes manage to get to the fourth unit, 1945-Present, it is so watered down and broad little meaningful information can be extracted by the students.

Most teachers (I hope) are not wasting time with their pupils, but they have poorly allocated the time they do have. From looking at countless worksheets and unit tests teachers become far too obsessed with the World Wars. Students are forced to study minute details about those conflicts. More time is dedicated to those 10 combined years than to the rest of the century. World War I was likely the most consequential war in the modern era. It fundamentally shaped the world into what we know it as today, but if you think a grade 10 student needs to understand the Schlieffen Plan as a term, but not be able to identify who Tommy Douglas was then you and I have very different understandings of Canadian history. The Schlieffen Plan is only relevant if you know about the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. Otherwise, "The Germans invaded Belgium to surprise France in their offensive" is all that needs to be said on the topic.

Instead weeks of school time are dedicated to battles that Canada did not participate in and scrutinizing every piece of military technology. I am not arguing that World War I is not important, what I am asking is that if you wanted to teach someone what was relevant about Canada's history would you spend a quarter of the time on 1914-1918?

I believe the focus on the World Wars reveals a strong Eurocentric bias in the Ontario curriculum. Hitler's rise to power is not terribly relevant for a Canadian history class. It would be exceptionally relevant in a world history course though, or government. The focus on the World Wars sucks the oxygen away from other pressing issues. Labour unrest and political radicalism was at its peak in that period and arguably has far more to do with the country we live in today as the Battle of Ypres and the Liberation of the Scheldt. The Winnipeg General Strike and general unrest from 1910-1940 deserves just as much say.

Perhaps my perspective on this next part is heavily influenced by where I grew up. The Canada we know and love today was born in the Post-War period. The wartime, and hard times of the early 20th century are crucial, but many of the institutions we associate with our country comes from the post-war period. The welfare state, socialized medicine, our flag, multiculturalism, open immigration, technology, Canada's status as a middle/minor power all stems from mid-20th century. I teach mostly non-white students. When I ask them about their family history and they say their grandparents or parents came in the 1970s I can tell them that that was because of the point system and previous to that they likely could not. It shocks them, literally, that there was a time when people like those in their families were not welcome here. A great deal of time is spent on events (many of which are only tangentially related to Canada) rather than the spirit of Canada in different time periods. From proudly white and British and a reticent French contingent to what we are now was a hell of a journey, one this course isn't communicating.

History has certain fracture points that tend to echo decades or centuries down strongly. Martin Luther's theses is one example that pops to mind. But aside from these moments the most recent past has a greater impact on our day-to-day life. The last couple decades are critical for understanding the world we currently live in. In particular the events of September 11th, 2001 would fit well in a history course today. It profoundly impacted our lives today in Canada and elsewhere and the ripple effects are still out there. Students in this course, 15-16 years old, have no memory of 9/11. They don't understand that North America has transformed since then. That the post-Cold War euphoria transformed into the paranoia security state etc. we know today. Right now a graduate from CHC2D/P has very little information that helps them understand how Canada came to be the country it is today. Canadians know shockingly little about their history and politics. Is it any wonder if they are left with 40-50 year gap in their knowledge to how we got from World War II to the present?

Finally, Canadian history is not and should not be a film studies course. The number of students I have spoken to that have described multiple classes being dedicated to multiple films for little tangible educational benefit is staggering. I showed clips in my class. The most I showed, I believe, was the episode of Band of Brothers on a long-weekend Friday where they liberate the concentration camp, as I thought the visuals would be more effective for them. The D-Day landing in Saving Private Ryan is incredible, but the whole film doesn't belong. Hollywood is not renowned for its tact and thorough depictions of historic periods, events or figures. Offering them as a solid resource gives a plastic, flimsy understanding of history to students.

History, by its nature, is a narrative discipline. We're trying to tell stories, present arguments and offer up perspectives. A dull recitation of facts and dates with more relationship to world or European history with scant context and the enticement of frequent films is hardly serving our students to become informed, knowledgeable citizens. Not all history teachers are bad at what they do; though a shocking number who teach though are not trained in history. We are lucky to have a mandatory history course, but who is it currently serving? It's time for Canadian history to better reflect the entire 20th century and for what's happening in classrooms to better match what the curriculum intends.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Worth Reading - August 4, 2016

The Liberal government has announced plans to reform how Supreme Court justices are selected. The hope is to make the process less elite, which strikes me odd for the most prestigious court in the land.

From the Globe and Mail's Doug Saunders, the role of parties in democracies

Why one urbanist decided to run for city council

Wired magazine has a story about American cities de-paving their roads and turning it into gravel in order to meet shrinking budgets. 

Chuck Marohn had a run-in with his local newspaper. I cannot say I have not had similar feelings toward narrow-minded media coverage.

By shifting trips from car to bicycle Portland, Oregon may by freeing up $138 million per year for the local economy. I really love this article, it gives a real sense of the potential.

From the National Post's Stephen Gordon, the Conservative Party is foolish for attacking carbon pricing

Transit riders and commuters are looking for better service, not high-tech gimmicks in their transportation. 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

The Struggle of Municipalities in the Global Economy

When I lived in Fort Smith a strange thought would occasionally occur to me; if the government laid everyone off, would the town even exist anymore? A huge proportion of the people I met with and dealt with were government employees. The Territory employs a tremendous proportion of the population. Fort Smith is a company town where the business is government. We're all there providing services to each other, so if we all were told to leave would anything be left?

It was a silly idea. The Salt River First Nation and other local Dene and Metis population have called the area home for centuries. In a sense though Fort Smith represent a broader problem in a microcosm.  Fort Smith came to be as a missionary outpost turned into a key transportation hub and into an administrative/government centre. All of the old functions have fallen away. Instead of a transport link Fort Smith is now the end of the road and the old industries that gave it life are now gone.

Fort Smith is an extreme example but is shines light on a common problem; what are cities not deemed to be key to the global economy or without natural resources to do? This problem is acutely more obvious in North America which has seen its industrial sector gutted. In post-industrial North America what role do we assign our cities that are not global hubs or resource centres?

Domestic manufacturing and internal trade provided an impetus to many smaller cities. It provided them with wealth to spend locally and connections to the broader world. An industrial town could provide a floor and security for the local population to build small and medium businesses around. Cities that are thriving in North America can be usually set into a few categories: global cities, government/academia hubs, resource cities. Global cities include the obvious New York, Vancouver, San Francisco, etc. These cities are well integrated into global trade and commerce and have sophisticated businesses that connect to cities across the world. It should be noted that these cities should be thought of as city-regions. I am confident one of the reasons Hamilton, Ontario is showing some vitality is because it is connected to Toronto. It has gone from a major, independent, industrial city to a quirky suburb, like Brooklyn. Governments generally don't got out of business. Cities like Washington and Ottawa weather recessions and bad times quite well. Cites with provincial or state capitals are likewise buffeted from the post-industrial economy. Universities and colleges act as the new company towns in some cities. Pittsburgh basically banked its future on it. Finally, cities like Calgary and Houston build their livelihood off of resources.

Many of the cities who do not belong in the above categories have struggled mightily since the 1970s. Some many of these small and mid-sized cities have tried to tied their wagons to the latest fad, be it high tech, app development or biotech. The simple truth is, as it seems the case, that those industries will accrue in academic centres and global cities. Belleville, Ontario and Gary, Indiana are not going to become hubs for biotech innovation. Cities who once acted as important transportation or trade points are now increasingly irrelevant in point-to-point trade and the digital economy. It is not wrong to say that Torontonians have more in common with the residents of London, Chicago, and Hong Kong than Windsor, Welland and Brantford.

The abandonment of these kinds of cities and regions have spurred on resentment and division. If you want to see where some of the 'new' politics we have been seeing in the United States and United Kingdom has come from look to those places. Governments have seemed unable to provide meaningful alternatives to these locales with the departure of industry. Instead, much like Fort Smith, they perpetuate on government subsidy and on providing services to the local/regional population. How to solve this problem (or crisis) will be a defining feature of many of our cities' futures.